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The Theft of Voting Rights in Arizona

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What’s happening in Arizona right now, relatively under the radar in the traditional media (with a few notable exceptions), approaches the kind of thing you’d expect out of a banana republic. The short version is that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio didn’t want to lose re-election, so he and his colleagues tried to make sure that nobody of the Latino persuasion would be allowed to vote. And they used a variety of tactics to ensure that result. That’s pretty much what’s going on:

A week after the election, the state has counted more than two-thirds of its early ballots, but 146,843 still remain. In addition, 177,519 provisional ballots have yet to be processed. All in all, a week after the election, that adds up to 324,362 uncounted votes. In context, the number isn’t as notable as you might think. Ohio, for instance, does not touch its provisional ballots until a full ten days after the election, meaning that only on Friday will the state begin to process around 300,000 of its ballots. Arizona’s uncounted early ballots can be chalked up to an administrative problem—too few poll workers, too many ballots. But in a state where many in the Latino community already feel targeted, and where Sheriff Joe Arpaio makes headlines for ill-treatment of those arrested, the idea that some votes are under more review than others prompts serious concern.

It’s the provisional ballots that have Ramirez and others most concerned. There were about 15 percent more this year than in 2008. These ballots are meant to be a fail-safe, to ensure that no one unfairly loses his or her right to vote. But they’re also a sign something went wrong, either with elections administrators or voters. The poll workers must engage in a time-consuming follow-up to try and make sure the votes count.

The majority of Arizona’s provisional ballots came from voters who had requested early ballots and then also tried to cast a vote on Election Day. In that situation, a voter must cast a provisional ballot so that the poll workers can make sure that he or she didn’t vote twice. However, Ramirez and Allessandra Soler, head of the state’s ACLU chapter, both say they are concerned that some voters never received their early ballots at all, and therefore had to vote in person. Many voting activists in the state share that suspicion. Others have said voters were simply misinformed or confused about what they needed to do.

There were structural problems as well, which caused poll workers to miss the names of first-time voters on the rolls, leading to a spike in provisional ballots where there wasn’t just summary disenfranchisement. One Republican candidate locked in a close Congressional election is trying to stop provisional ballots from being counted in a heavily Latino area. Stories like the one in the video above are as commonplace as they are heartbreaking.

I know that various Democratic lawmakers have doomed to fail “election overhaul” bills, but the better plan here is probably just to raise awareness to places like Arizona and the theft of voting rights taking place there. More than message bills, that actually has a chance of shaming those in charge into some form of compliance.

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David Dayen

David Dayen